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An Historic Turning Point for Reforming Statutes of Limitations for Child Sex Abuse: News From Massachusetts, and More

Legions of victims of child sex abuse will tell you that when they were finally ready to talk to a prosecutor or a lawyer, the criminal and/or civil statutes of limitations (SOLs) had already expired.  Across the United States, one victim after another has been surprised by these cruel and arbitrary legal deadlines.

For decades, states have been adjusting their child sex abuse SOLs in response to fresh stories of horror.  At one time, states measured the SOL from the date of the abuse, giving victims only a few years in which to sue.  Then, they set age 18 as the moment when the clock started ticking.  Now, we have a true 50-state experiment, with a wide variety of approaches among the states.

There is one common theme, however:  States are constantly working to extend their child sex abuse SOLs, because there is always a new victim with a compelling story that shows lawmakers the folly of having any SOL at all for the heinous crime of child sex abuse.

The Situation in Massachusetts Regarding Child Sex Abuse Statutes of Limitations

That was precisely what was happening in Massachusetts when in 1996, the legislature extended the criminal SOL for child sex abuse to the date that marks 15 years after the victim turns 16.  But that SOL still shut down justice for too many victims, and so there was another extension, in 2006.  That year, the Massachusetts Legislature voted to extend the criminal SOL to 27 years after a victim turns 16.

That extension, however, still cut out victims like Rosanne Sliney, whose uncle abused her beginning when she was five, and ending when she was 14.  Another survivor, Kathy Picard, who came forward at age 32, also remains shut out by the SOLs—just missing each SOL extension, by just one year each time.  Like the vast majority of child abuse survivors, Sliney and Picard needed decades before they could come forward to talk about their abuse, and thus, they missed the state’s arbitrary limits.

Picard, along with other child sex abuse victims, is now campaigning hard to persuade Massachusetts legislators to eliminate the SOLs for child sex abuse altogether.  Right now, Massachusetts’s civil statute of limitations is only 3 years from either the victim’s 18th birthday, or the discovery of the abuse.

Massachusetts now has a bill pending that would eliminate the criminal and civil SOLs for child sex abuse, as well as beef up the penalties for the failure to report such abuse, and set new requirements for the training of mandated reporters.  That bill, H 469, also called “The Protection from Sexual Predators Act of 2011,” would, if enacted, help hundreds of victims in Massachusetts and, at the same time, identify for parents the hidden predators in their midst.  It would also make Massachusetts the most recent state, after Delaware to pass groundbreaking legislation that includes elimination of both civil and criminal SOLs for all claims into the future.

In an Increasing Number of States, the Tide Is Turning in Favor of Legislation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse Statutes of Limitations Entirely—but the Catholic Bishops Are Fighting the New Laws

Massachusetts would still have Sliney and Picard on the sidelines unless it adds a window, which would permit, for a limited number of years, those victims whose civil claims have expired a chance go to court.  Similar statute-of-limitations window legislation was passed in Minnesota, California, Delaware, and Guam, and is now pending in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Hawaii.

Finally, the tide is turning in favor of such legislation.  The Catholic Bishops have made the defeat of child sex abuse SOL reform a top priority in every state where it has been introduced, and particularly the window.  While they have occasionally been able to recruit allies—such as, for example, Agudath Israel in New York—the bishops are still the ones who have taken the lead on fighting against child sex abuse victims, including incest survivors (such as Kathy Picard and Rosanne Sliney), who make up the majority of survivors.

The Catholic Bishops have trotted out the same bag of arguments in each state.  First, they say it isn’t “fair” to let them be sued when “memories fade and witnesses die.”  Their narcissistic insistence that state legislators must put “fairness” to them ahead of justice for the victims speaks for itself.

Moreover, that position is primarily intended to deflect legislators from focusing on two key facts: (1) eliminating the SOL does not change the burdens of proof, which rest first on the victim; if the victim doesn’t have enough evidence to support the claim, no defense need be raised; and (2) the primary source of information on the abuse of children in organizations is typically material that is in the organization’s own files, and this is particularly true for dioceses.  Thus, the Bishops’ objection, despite its undoubted surface appeal, has no actual content.

The Bishops’ Claim That Churches Will Face “Bankruptcy” Is Spurious

Second, the Bishops always say that they will be “bankrupted” by such cases.  If they mean that they will file voluntary bankruptcy in order to reduce the payouts to victims and to flush out all victims so that they can avoid further claims in the future, then they are right.  But that would be their own choice, not a result of indigency.

If the Bishops mean that they will not have enough resources to pay the claims, they are misleading the public and their own believers.  The damages payments by the dioceses to victims so far have been paid by insurance (yes, they have insurance coverage for cases in which they have negligently supervised their employees who abuse children), and by the sale of property that is not devoted to religious use, such as office or apartment buildings, hotels, or empty lots.  The largest payout in American history came from the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which had built an extravagant cathedral at a cost of over $189 million just five years before. Thus, this argument, too, is a big fat red herring.

It is a simple fact that the Bishops, regardless of what they say in public about “fairness” and money, just don’t want the full truth to emerge into the sunshine.  There are likely hundreds of unnamed priests who abused children in the New York Archdiocese alone.  The hundreds of thousands—indeed, likely millions—of parishioners’ donation dollars that have been spent on lobbying against the New York SOL window and modest extensions is, in all likelihood, motivated most by the Bishops’ consuming and poisonous fear of the truth.

The Bishops have not turned the corner on the sexual abuse by their clergy—far from it—and they never will do so, unless they release the full truth of these matters, which is currently buried in their files.  In fact, they cannot avoid the inevitable release of the information at issue, because the truth is also carved into the hearts, souls, and memories of their victims, whose voices are rising.

Massachusetts May Be the Setting for a Key Child Sex Abuse SOL Turning Point

The turning point appears to have come in Massachusetts, where Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty did all he could to keep the SOL reform bill from making it out of his House Judiciary Committee.  Yet, after he was attacked for choosing the pedophile’s side against the safety of children, he not only backed off his original position, but resigned as Chair of the Judiciary Committee.  The bill is actually going to the House floor.  At last, a legislator so felt the heat of the victims’ pent-up agony that he chose to cut and run.

There are other legislators just like O’Flaherty, in New York and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, who are still carrying the standard for the bishops against the victims.  But they too will have to move aside—or else embrace their role as protectors of the pedophiles.  The incest victims, our most silent of survivors till now, are joining their voices to those of the organizational victims.  They all deserve their day in court.

Marci A. HamiltonMarci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, and the author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. She also runs two active websites covering her areas of expertise, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, www.RFRAperils.com, and statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, www.sol-reform.com. Professor Hamilton blogs at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights. Her email address is hamilton02@aol.com.
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13 Responses to An Historic Turning Point for Reforming Statutes of Limitations for Child Sex Abuse: News From Massachusetts, and More

  1. Johnsmith says:

    Get your facts straight. Chairman O’Flaherty left the committee after a barrage of hateful calls to his home, threats, protests outside his home and that was the icing on the cake. What a way to pass law!!!

  2. debbie says:

    Thank you Marci!

  3. Habalady says:

    Too bad you don’t have your facts straight about the Catholic Church.You are the one exploiting  by smearing the truth.

  4. PJC says:

    It is obvious from the language (very articulate) used that your “column” is a “brief” for your personal views against the Catholic church and its hierarchy.  The hierarchy has committed the pedophilia not the institution.  It was not done “in the name of God” or as a Church aim.  Abolishing the criminal or civil SOL entirely for one class of plaintiffs is indefensible from a legal view although it certainly has emotional appeal.  Next, there will be a challenge to having a civil SOL for any intentional tort.  How do we distinguish classes of plaintiffs.  You may mean well, but your agenda is showing.  I do enjoy your column.
        

  5. Anonymous says:

    A million thank-yous to you, dear Marci Hamilton, for all that you do to protect our nation’s children.

  6. FirstL says:

    The problem is that statute of limitations exist for a reason … namely, the degradation of evidence, both physical evidence and memory. Pity the poor person who has to defend themselves against someone’s “memory” twenty or more years after the fact.

    No one should defend child abuse of any sort. But removing the statute of limitations is not the answer in most cases. Giving a dozen or so years after the victim turns 18 may be acceptable, but removing completely could result in a serious miscarriage of justice.

  7. JohnDoeUtah says:

    The SOL needs to remain in place.  It is not fair or judicious to allow an alleged event from 20-30 years prior to ruining someones reputation.  There is a high percentage of false acusations when it comes to sex crime, many cases get pleaded out because the government cannot prove thier case beyond a reasonable doubt (yet, juries are polarized against any sex crime defendant with extreme bias).  Prosecutors would rather use scare tactics to get convictions through plea agreements than take the chance of getting a smart jury.  This whole sex offense business is nothing more than political garbage.  Repealing the SOL will only compound the problem.

    • Chris D. says:

      As a survivor of childhood sex abuse (and a retired attorney), I’m offended your statement that “[t]his whole sex offense business is nothing more than political garbage.” Statements like yours minimize the harm (emotional, financial, medical, spiritual) that’s caused by these crimes. Those of us who have lived experience with these issues (or love those who do) may consider your opinions and positions to be more like “garbage” than our system of criminal justice.

  8. Wifeofaformervictim says:

    @John Doe Utah: What about murder cases ? The same burden of evidence applies there. I cannot believe anyone would agree with denying a victim of a heinous crime such as childhood sexual abuse the right to be heard, prosecute the accuser and potentially save current or future victims from a perpetrator. These are not easy cases to prosecute, but It MUST be done nonetheless. If you don’t agree, be a victim, know a victim or ask a victim who is close to you and maybe you will see the importance. People put their heads in the sand about the horror of these crimes, feel uncomfortable about them, and then do not want to address the fact that there are MANY MANY monsters getting away with these crimes for decades. Stop the insanity.

    • rem says:

      all states need to pass sol’s uniformly across the board in fairness to all victims so no one is left out; pjc’s comments on the heirarchy of the catholic church show next to nothing how much he or she really knows. without going into detail on the internet the catholic institutions globally were operated and maintined by the heirarchy for their own financial benefit in collusion with the state governments what was supposedly to be for the betterment of society but turned out to destroy thousands and maybe millions of childrens lives, their loved ones, and even their parents. and this is not conjecture but documented and subtantiated facts. so yes some sexual abuse was thrown into the mix with horendous crimes like extreme physical assualts and ritualistic torture, child slave labor, lack of education, health, and welfare; and worst of all as in the holocaust and genocide of the native american indian, these state and catholic run institutions were most egregious in their crimes of ripping tiny children from their homes and breaking up families and in turn stripping them of all their indentity, culture, beloved memories, and using large masses of children to slave in their institutions run like labor camps.  what little ameria truly knows about these horrific crimes.

  9. B. Manning says:

    Dear Marci, I am a victim of child sexual abuse. An Uncle has now been found to have been a SERIAL pedifile. It appears he has been active in the last 5 years {his own grandchildren]. He has moved to a new town hundreds of miles away from where he maintained a residence. Is there any a way to contact the authorities in that area to notify them while we wait for the young women of our family to press charges?

  10. Herstory says:

    SOL should be abolished for SA cases. The past pattern formed to protect the vile amongst us in favor of letting them get away with abusing everyone both in private and public sectors all by keeping it secret- and it has to stop.
    Have zero sympathy for child molesters what so ever, and while it is possible a priest molested my abuser too, that does not make it okay to abuse another in turn. Bull worship? Its why we have all this sick of this nonsense going on, it has to stop. These are the bullies, using size, strength, intimidation to take more than whats normally allocated away from the rest of us. It all traces back to the church’s debasing womens standing in their own communities. In the work place find its more of the same, in schools more of the same, bully types think its okay degrade based on gender, no reason other than manipulative eve-shamming tactics. All to cause loss of social standing, loss of income- its the trifecta of father, son, and the gone spirit of women victimized and sense of justice extinguished. Traumatize them and they will never know how to re-claim their rights. This leaves us with how to best defend from the onslaught and remain grounded and sane at the same time, which is the ultimate question and quest.

    As it stands now, the justice community cannot handle all SA crimes committed. Parents have to take stronger stands against sexualized violence and harassment, teach responsible behavior. Sexual harassment is never okay, not from anyone. Kids now use the expression is “blow me” – where do they learn it- outside source- school buddies, media, explicit video games, etc. but that is the atmosphere these kids are growing up in. Where does the the sense of entitlement to have phallus’s silence dissent come from- should we thank gvmnt for codifying commercial code to sanction sexualized violence, or simply accept and live with the social problems and corruption at the highest levels of IMF- Vatican bank, bought elections, missing trillions, deficits, ect etc ect – this stuff is not right! How do they accomplish it? Shame & silencing victims, thats how.

    Community all must take a stronger stand deciding that thse issues are of utmost importance because it affects everything else. Human rights, first and above imposition and injustice. Accountability next.

    These are all part of busting a system of abuses which thrive on secrets, now more and more than ever awareness to correcting a corrupt system: No More! No more IMF-church enrichment while the poor starve to death, no more sexual abuses, no more pedophilia, NONE OF IT, its will be over, that reign of terror, and its fighters are indeed the meekest among us. Fight on with words – not weapons, then pen (or keyboard as it were) is mightier that then all swords put together. Onwards!

  11. Kathy Picard says:

    Thank you Marci for this article and I am glad to say that as of June 26th 2014 the Civil SOL has been extending to include myself to file a civil suit against my perp who sexually abused me from 7-17 years old. The thoughts, feelings that a survivor has from being abused don’t just go away as some say. You don’t just go on with your life as you are told to do. Thank you to all that helped pass H4126!

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